Today, Ben Stiller is a very popular actor and director. But, everyone has to start somewhere and (aside from being the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) Stiller got his start with his own television on MTV in 1990. That show was good enough to garner the attention of FOX, who brought the show to their network in 1992, where the show promptly died. The Ben Stiller Show aired on FOX from September 1992 to January 1993, and was the lowest rated show of the season. And then, in an ironic twist, the show won an Emmy award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Variety or Music Program. Since then, Stiller (and many of the team from the show) have gone on to bigger and better things, but there has always been talk about what a missed opportunity The Ben Stiller Show was, and that it was ahead of its time. Well, maybe now its time has come, as all 13 episodes of The Ben Stiller Show are now available on DVD.
The Ben Stiller Show is a sketch comedy program which is similar in many ways to "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV". The show starred Ben Stiller, who also served as a host, as he would greet the audience at the show's opening, and then introduce the sketches. The cast also consisted of Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk. Also, each episode featured an appearance by at least one well-known face, such as Garry Shandling, Bobcat Goldthwait, James Doohan, Casey Kasem, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dennis Miller, and Mark Wahlberg. The content of The Ben Stiller Show consisted of a mixture of original comedy pieces (such as "Michael Pheret, Agent", "Relaxation Tapes", and the "No, No, No Guy"), most of which featured the cast members creating new and memorable characters.
But, the bulk of The Ben Stiller Show featured parodies of movies, TV shows, commercials, and celebrities. These parodies were always dead-on and are too numerous to mention, but the best ones are still as funny today as they were then. Stiller's take on Bono is classic, and the take-off on "COPS" (which features policemen throughout history, such as in Salem, Massachusetts) remains timely. One of the show's many running gags was a fake TV show entitled "Skank", which stars a foul-mouthed sock-puppet (whose catch-phrase is "Shut your stinkin' trap!") and makes fun of "Married...With Children". Other Stiller characters include Bruce Springsteen and Charles Manson.
As with any sketch comedy show, the material on The Ben Stiller Show is hit-or-miss, but on the whole, the show is very funny. The vast majority of the sketches spring from very clever ideas, as Stiller and his staff of writers demonstrated a true understanding of parody, and which facet of a show or movie to make fun of. But, The Ben Stiller Show is plagued with the same problem which has always cursed "Saturday Night Live." Many of the sketches, no matter how good the basis is, go on too long. The greatest ideas in the world can't save a segment which wears out its welcome. Thus, we have the beauty of having The Ben Stiller Show on DVD is that one can easily skip ahead to the next sketch. But, that won't happen very often, as The Ben Stiller Show features some classic TV moments and allows one to see many familiar faces taking their first steps towards stardom.
Warner Home Video brings The Ben Stiller Show to DVD. This 2-disc set contains all 13 episodes of the program, included one which never aired. The shows are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The video quality of the shows varies from segment to segment, but for the most part, the transfers look good. The show's introduction and many of the shorts which air between the sketches were apparently shot on 16mm and don't look very good. These segments are washed-out and display a great deal of grain and artifacting. However, most of the individual sketches look very good. The colors are fine, and there is little grain. Some of the segments do display some hints of artifacting and edge-enhancement (with visible haloes), but these aren't overly distracting.
The shows carry a Dolby Surround Stereo audio track. These tracks provide clear and audile dialogue, with no indication of hissing or distortion. The surround effects consist mainly of musical cues and an occasional sound effect. The audio does offer some nice stereo effects as well.
The Ben Stiller Show DVD contains several quality extra features and it's great to see most of the original members of the crew involved in making the DVD. Seven of the episodes features audio commentaries. Episode 1 has a commentary from Stiller and writer Judd Apatow; Episodes 5 & 8 feature Stiller, Apatow, actors Andy Dick, John O'Donohue, and Janeane Garofalo, and writers Brent Forrester and Rob Cohen; Episode 9 has Stiller, O'Donohue, Dick, Cohen, Garofalo, Forrester; and Episodes 10, 12, & 13 have Stiller, Cohen, and writers David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Jeff Kahn. All of these commentaries are very entertaining and informative. As the chats features very funny individuals, there are some very humorous moments during the talks, and it's fun to hear these groups reminisce about working on their little show.
The other extras are all contained on Disc 2. There are five unaired sketches, which can be viewed with or without commentary from Stiller, Apatow, Forrester, Garofalo, and Cohen. (And contains the great line, "How can a show that parodies Ron Perlman get cancelled?") These are unfinished, rough cuts of these sketches, and some have missing graphics. The sketches total 13 minutes, and they are all interesting, but "Let There Be Wrestling" is the one that I wish had made it to the real show. There are outtakes from nine different sketches. "A Brief History of The Ben Stiller Show" is a text feature which details the rise and quick fall of the program. Within this feature, the viewer can access a 5-minute clip from Stiller's MTV show, and view two alternate openings to the pilot episode of The Ben Stiller Show. Finally, we have an "E! Behind-the-Scenes Special" (11 minutes) which focuses on The Ben Stiller Show, and features Stiller wandering the set and offices, chatting with various crew members.
Releasing TV shows on DVD has become big business, and while it's a given that we get shows such as "Friends" and "The Simpsons" on DVD, it's nice to see that Warner had the guts to release the often discussed, but rarely seen The Ben Stiller Show. The show is still very funny today, and it's great to see the baby-faced Stiller perfecting his craft.